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Phoenix bound? Maybe you're making that yearly trek to IKEA to stock up on Swedish meatballs, or maybe you’re just trying to find a different route to the Mesa Gateway Airport. The long dusty drive up I-10 can put you in a haze of concrete highway and ugly billboards. Even Picacho Peak can seem bleak after the 50th time you’ve seen it — and that rise is incredible!
Most people don’t know that there’s another way to get to the Valley of the Sun. If you take Oracle Road straight up, you will drive past the majestic peaks of the Catalina Mountains to the small town of Catalina, and end up in Oracle Junction.
This route, otherwise known as Arizona Highway 77, was actually the original road that connected Tucson to the rest of Arizona, before I-10 was constructed in the ’50s. From Oracle Junction, you’ll probably want to take Highway 79 up toward Florence, and then onto Coolidge or the San Tan Valley southeast of Phoenix proper.
This 95-mile drive immerses you in the desert landscape more than any other Arizona highway drive you’ll find heading out of Tucson. With its dense brushes of cholla that seem to take over the road and some of the tallest and oldest saguaros you’ll ever see, this route is a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a desert rat at heart
Besides the wonderful landscape, these back roads are filled with quirky activities and things you just have to see with your own eyes. We know you are busy person and you gotta get to the airport on time, but here’s a list of activities we think you’ll enjoy along the way. Some of them are worth the trip by themselves.
Claire's Cafe & Art Gallery
Head over here if: You’re a fan of homey cafes like Blue Willow, or just love your Jewish deli foods. Chicago-native Claire Johnson is a commanding presence who makes some killer potato latkes. But she’s also got a full breakfast menu of omelets, pancakes, French toast and more for the non-kosher kinda folks.
What to get: The three of us split an order of cheese blintzes, a bagel and lox platter with some spectacular buttery salmon, the crispy latkes and a fluffy pecan roll. Just, all of it!
Driving directions: Claire’s is right off the Highway 77 in Catalina.
More info: clairescafe.net
Golden Goose Thrift Shop
Head over here if: You have the trunk space or don’t mind traveling home with a dresser in the backseat. The Golden Goose is a nonprofit thrift shop that’s supported by donors and run by volunteers who do a wonderful job expertly managing the store. Profits raised from sales go to support local outreach organizations in the Saddlebrook and Southern Arizona community. Here you’ll find some great quality second-hand stuff including furniture, clothing, jewelry, appliances, sporting goods, home decor, electronics, books and so much more. It truly is a thrifter’s paradise!
What to do: Hit up the sales. The Goose offers a daily selection of deals that ranges from 25 percent off furniture to 50 percent off clothing. Be sure to pick up a flyer at the front of the store that has all the discounted info for the day.
Driving directions: The Golden Goose is right off Highway 77 in Catalina, right before Claire’s.
More info: goldengooseaz.com
Saint Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery
Head over here if: You’d like a taste of European spirituality smack in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. This lush compound of palm tree-lined pathways and stunning Greek churches was built in the ’90s as a monastery for members of the Greek Orthodox Church, who draw their faith from Mount Athos, Greece.. St. Anthony’s is really a magical place that you have to see to believe.
Don’t forget: Female visitors must wear floor-length skirts and scarves, but if you don’t have that, they’ll be provided at the gate. Also, make sure you stop by the gift shop and grab a bottle of olives grown on property. They’re fantastic!
Driving directions: From Highway 79, turn off on East Paisano Drive and follow it east for a few minutes until you get to the compound.
More info: stanthonysmonastery.org
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
We’re always grateful and happy to learn about the areas we visit. To learn the backgrounds and the stories of the people who inhabited these lands long ago.. Casa Grande which is Spanish for “Big House” which should be pronounced the way it was found and named originally in Spanish.... “Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, in Coolidge, Arizona, just northeast of the city of Casa Grande, preserves a group of Ancient Pueblo Peoples Hohokam structures of the Pueblo III and Pueblo IV Eras. Wikipedia” #ruins #casagrande #arizona #ancientpeople #history #rvlife #explore
Head over here if: You love learning about the history of the Sonoran Desert and have a few hours to spare. One of the largest prehistoric structures ever built in North America, the Casa Grande Ruins has been a part of our Southwest landscape for about 700 years. The true intent for the building and the compound it sits on is still unknown (maybe this it was a temple? Or a large watchtower?), but it does provide some insight on what life could of been like for the ancient people who lived in the area. Now this preserved site is a education hot spot for researchers and tourists alike.
What to do: Take a guided tour of the ruins. It’s free and occurs hourly starting in late November and ending mid-April. Here you will learn about the Hohokam culture and the history of the ruins. Be sure to walk through the visitor’s center and bookstore before you leave!
Don’t forget: To bring some money. Passes to get onto the grounds are $10 for adults and free for anyone under the age of 15. Find more pricing information here.
Driving directions: From Oracle Junction, take Arizona Highway 79 north for about 65 miles till you hit the Florence Coolidge Highway and head west. Turn right onto Ruins Drive and you’re there.
More info: nps.org
Head over there if: You’re into street foods and funky fabulous mashups like mac and cheese empanadas ... After you drive through the farm roads of San Tan Valley, you’ll be surprised how trendy this little space is. Lola Empanada’s menu is most entirely made up of these crunchy latin treats. Lola herself stuffs then with anything from spinach ricotta to Nutella and pineapple.
What to get: The fillings are constantly changing, but my favorite was the green chile chicken, followed by the buffalo chicken mac, which was filled with cheesy pasta.
Driving directions: Head north from Coolidge through the small farm roads until you get to East Skyline Drive, then take a left.
More info: facebook.com/Lola.Empanada.77
The Pork Shop
Head over there if: All the pork you didn’t know you needed! But honestly, in the era of Whole Foods, this locally-owned butcher shop is something we sorely need in Tucson. Even if you’re not going to pick up some pig’s ears or house-cured bacon, grab a packet of pork jerky sticks to-go. They have samples too.
What to get: If you’re not stuffed by now, they also sell chile pork burritos. Enough said.
Driving directions: Just up West Combs Road from the Queen Creek Olive Mill
More info: theporkshopaz.com
Queen Creek Olive Mill
Go here if: You want to make a weekend of your trip. Really, don’t make any other plans if you decide to visit this place. From the olive oil fare, tours, food, bakery, coffee shop, store, and wine, you could easily spend an entire day there and not realize it. What started as a 100-acre olive grove in the late '90s has turned into a fun tourist spot that attracts visitors from all over.
What to do: Sample the olive oil. Queen Creek has several varieties and flavors to taste from and it’s all made onsite.
If you want to know more about what goes into this stuff, take the Olive Oil 101 Tour where you learn all about the process of making olive oil and its properties. Admission for the tour is $7 per-person, kids under 12 get in free.
What to eat: Get there for breakfast to try the vanilla bean olive oil waffle — it's served with house-made maple syrup. If you're still feeling the sweet tooth, the mill has a bakery with treats made with, you guessed it, olive oil! We recommend the cupcakes — they're moist and have a nice sweet flavor to them. If you're going for lunch get the bruschetta, it comes in a number of topping combinations including melted Gorgonzola cheese and salami, burnt mozzarella and pesto, and bacon avocado. You can also go green and get a salad made with ingredients grown from their garden. Top the whole thing off with some wine and have a wonderful time!
Driving directions: Take Arizona Highway 79 to E. Hunt Highway in Florence. Continue on this highway for about 17 miles till you hit Gary Road and head north. The olive mill is about two miles in and to your right on the corner of Combs Road.
More info: queencreekolivemill.com
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